Last Man Standing

In the 25 years that he's served as Hennepin County's first and only chief public defender, Bill Kennedy has earned a tough-as-nails reputation for the way he defends his clients, his staff, and himself. This year he's pitted against Hennepin County prose

          The flip side is obvious for those who have found themselves opposing the chief. Former Hennepin County Chief Judge Kevin Burke, who says he's been both friend and foe of Kennedy's, describes him as "part charmer, part IRA bomb-thrower. He can be intensely passionate for the causes he believes in, and intensely difficult when you're on the other side."

          "I liken him to a combat drill sergeant," says local lawyer Dick Beens, who battled Kennedy during the fight over whether the state or Hennepin County should govern his office. "His troops, if they're going to have to be in the foxhole, want to be next to Kennedy. He takes care of them. Sometimes he takes care of them irrespective of what's going to happen to the rest of the world. And if you antagonize him, it's not a civilized fight.

          "I remember that at one point, he ordered all of his people to file affidavits of prejudice against Judge Burke [whom Kennedy at the time accused of sabotaging public defense]. I went up there one morning and watched several of the defenders doing it. One lady was in tears, and Judge Burke asked her if she was afraid for her job, and she silently nodded yes. I found it extremely poor judgment [on Kennedy's part]." Beens says he filed an ethics complaint against the chief, but that no action resulted.

          It's not just style that has made Kennedy anathema to a lot of people. More and more over his years as chief, he's been noisy in a world where the custom was to settle things quietly. As the political climate moved away from civil rights, civil liberties, and rehabilitation, his lawyers challenged entire chunks of the criminal justice system. There were cases questioning how police could set up an operation to buy hot merchandise and then arrest the sellers, or sell small amounts of crack and nail the customers for possession.

          And Kennedy's battles didn't stay confined to the legal arena. He lobbied the Legislature, pulled political strings, and made prolific use of the ethics-complaint procedure. It was in large part his influence that convinced Gov. Rudy Perpich--to whom Kennedy was both close friend and political adviser--to appoint a Supreme Court task force on racial bias in the judicial system. He testified before it himself, warning among other things that some police officers were "thumpers and racists."

          "If that kind of thing was coming from one of us," says former Urban League president, cable host, and adamant Kennedy supporter Ron Edwards, "there might be concern, but there would also be amusement. They could dismiss it. But Bill is considered one of their own--well
educated, well-trained, moving in the corridors of power. He breaks that accepted unanimity. And so there is less tolerance for him."

          In fact, it's close to a miracle Kennedy remains in office. The first move to replace him came in 1988, when a new guard of liberal county commissioners called him a dinosaur who fostered discontent in the county "family." The second and bigger one was in 1992, when the state Board of Public Defense reappointed him by a hair's breadth. A good part of the credit each time went to careful maneuvering by Kennedy loyalists in the legal community and politics. "The argument I kept making," says John Derus, a fellow north-sider who as chairman of the county board helped pull Kennedy through in '88, "was that he's not supposed to be friendly with us. We appoint him to be the people's lawyer. He's supposed to kick us in the shins and be a a strong spokesperson against any establishment figures who would infringe upon the rights of the poor."

          But if previous battles for Kennedy's job were tough, they're nothing compared to what's shaping up this year. By virtue of his background, his experience, and his political connections, Bill McGee may be the most formidable challenger Kennedy's ever faced--and vice versa. By the time Thursday's state board meeting ends, there's practically guaranteed to be political blood on the floor.

          Oddly, Kennedy and McGee have come to this point along trajectories that are practically mirror images of each other. One family was white and poor, the other black and middle class. The Kennedys moved from the country to a poor part of Minneapolis; the McGees started out in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood and moved outstate. Kennedy went to a Catholic school, McGee to a Lutheran college. And if Kennedy started as a prosecutor and landed in public defense, McGee began as a defender and became a prosecutor.

          There are similarities, too. Like Kennedy's, McGee's parents were socially active. His father, Earl, was the first black teacher at Central High before joining IBM in Rochester, where he became the president of the local NAACP. His wife Anna was a pioneer working with disabled people. Like Kennedy, McGee calls his mother the strongest influence on his character.

          After a couple of years at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, McGee finished his B.A. at the University of Minnesota, went on to grad school in classical studies, and then to the UM Law School. He learned a lesson in law enforcement around the same time, getting beaten by police who mistook him for a robbery suspect.

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